Strangers in a Strange Land
I’ve never been to Reno. Or, indeed, to anywhere in Nevada. In fact, I’ve never been to the United States at all, ever. (Shamefully, I had to look at a map on Google to even locate Reno). And so Zamatryna-Harani Erolorit, the young heroine of Susan Palwick’s second novel The Necessary Beggar, and I have something in common: for us America is a foreign country. Necessarily it’s more foreign for Zama than for me, since I’m from the UK and she originated in another dimension, but nevertheless...
In 2009 Zamatryna and her entire family — her mother Harani and her father Erolorit, her grandfather Timbor, her uncle Macsofo, her aunt Aliniana and her three little cousins — walk through an inter-dimensional doorway and into a refugee camp in Reno. She is just five years old. All they have is what they’re carrying — a few bundles of clothing, pots and pans and sleeping mats, and just one personal item each. Also with them is Zama’s other uncle Darroti, Timbor’s youngest son, and the cause of this communal exile from their homeland, Gandiffri, and from their beloved city, Lémabantunk. A perennial drunk, he has confessed to the murder of Gallicina-Malinafa Odarettari, not only "the daughter of the third cousin of the second wife of the Prime Minister," but also a Mendicant, a beggar just a month into her year of holy service. He was found, hovering over her corpse, bloody knife in hand; it was a particularly appalling crime:
To kill anyone is horrible, but to kill a Mendicant is inconceivable. For Mendicants by definition have nothing, and they are helpless, and they are honoring the Elements… It was a terrible death.
In Lémabantunk, where the Law of Hearts — of love and familial responsibility, of mercy — is all, even the most grievous acts may be forgiven if the transgressor repents, and if the victim forgives. But not murder, since:
…the dead cannot forgive. The souls of the dead live on, as trees or birds or flowers, but they can no longer speak to people to say I forgive or I burn with vengeance. They live in a dimension parallel to the one where people live, but unbridgeable by speech. And so we were sent into a dimension like that too, into exile, knowing that we would never be able to return.
Because of this same Law of Hearts, Darroti cannot go alone; his family won’t abandon him to his fate. They all must go.
Arriving at the door of the refugee camp, along with a drove of others from Afghanistan, Iraq and numerous war-torn regions of our own world is, in some ways, incredibly convenient: it gives them access to English language teaching and the immigrant integration process. That is what they are after all: asylum seekers, people without a choice about their final destination or control of their own fates. Then again their lack of "papers", their unintelligible language and their inability to explain where exactly they have come from causes incredible bureaucratic confusion and threatens to keep them in the limbo of the camp forever. Zama, translating for her grandfather in her nascent camp-learnt English, tries to explain:
"How did you get here?"
"We walked…we walked from our city into this desert."
"That is impossible…Why do you have no papers?"
"We had to leave so much behind."…
"What direction did you walk in, when you walked to the United States? Did you walk north?"
"We walked forward."’
Finally, in an act of pure desperation and guilt, Darroti hangs himself from the camp fence hoping that this will free his family of their exile. It doesn’t. It only stands to make things worse, adding insufferable grief and a sense of pointlessness to their sacrifice. Still, it does bring all kinds of well-meaning officials to their little tent —social workers, immigration and army officers and some local Evangelists, Lisa and Stan. In the end it is these Christians, the ones operating outside the "system" and out of pure charity, who provide an escape route.
During an anti-immigration bombing attack on the camp, Lisa very neatly whisks Zama and her family away to a house beyond the desert, buys them fake papers and provides Western clothing. There they settle into the task of "becoming Americans" — learning English, finding work, going to school. A decade and a bit passes: Timbor ends up driving one of those familiar yellow cabs, Erolorit packs meat for superstores and Aliniana paints nails in a beauty salon. Of all of them though it is Zama who is preternaturally good at assimilation; she grasps at the American dream and its mantra of wealth and success through hard work. As she so succinctly explains: "I’m an American now. That is my job." She memorizes dictionaries, organizes after school clubs, is a cheerleader and, graduating from high school two years early with phenomenal grades, is her class Valedictorian and Yearbook editor. She means to be a lawyer and earn enormous sums of money to make her family’s exile more tolerable.
Nevertheless the cracks are starting to show and the harsh realities of American life, with its economics, morals and ethics so different from the Law of Hearts, is testing the strength of the family bond. Macsofo has developed depression as well as an alcohol problem and is becoming violent towards his wife, who, subsequently and against all traditions of Lémabantunk, is seeking a divorce. Meanwhile Timbor’s and Zama’s natural inclination towards charity for the homeless (the equivalents of "Mendicants" in Nevada) is alienating them from their new, ungenerous culture.
It’s self-evident that the thrust of The Necessary Beggar’s plot and thematics are timely, dealing as they do with one of the most controversial issues of our contemporary world. It is about immigrants and how they adapt to their new countries, about the conflicts of interest and understanding that may arise out of ideological collision. These things are ubiquitous in our time, wherever we may live. Zama’s people hold to different spiritual truths: they believe that the spirits of the dead might enter into anything and so bless all things; they believe that giving charity is a sacred act for the health of the self; they believe that a unique combination of the four Elements of earth, air, fire and water make up each soul. America, in Palwick’s contrary view, only sees its resources with an eye to mindless consumption and reserves charity for the few "deserving" while calling the rest aberrant and tarring them as nuisances, delinquents and even criminals. Palwick plays on these divergences quite beautifully at times, by opposing them in the adults and having them confused in Zama and the other children. Dialogic set-pieces juxtapose the cultures:
…the children became good American consumers who could not eat just one Pringle, and who rarely remembered even to bless the first one. I remember Zamatryna when she was eleven, pulling a bag of popcorn out of the microwave and telling her uncle Macsofo, "You want me to bless every piece? Are you crazy?… Too much work… if the popcorn was haunted I’d know… it would be like scary popcorn. This isn’t scary popcorn. Night of the Living Popcorn. Woo-woo-wooooo. Would you just chill?"
It is this aspect of the novel — the interiority of the immigrant experience — that Palwick does well, working in a naïve, even lyrical prose and using Timbor, the eldest of the family group, as a first person narrator in every third chapter. His experience and analysis of it is oftentimes moving as he tries to reconcile himself to exile so late in his life and to be strong for the sake of his grandchildren. Sympathy is not difficult. Equally, Darroti’s back story and the revelation of his real relationship with Gallicina (narrated by his ghost in another third of the chapters) is prettily and cathartically told, although it seems a shame that we don’t get more of Lémabantunk.
It is such a pity then that The Necessary Beggar also has some poor characterization and a dreadful, and I mean dreadful, dénouement; so syrupy and saccharine and tired that you can second-guess it right from the beginning.
Aside from the family themselves, Palwick’s characters aren’t really people, they’re plot devices designed to get Zama, Timbor et al from one emotional tableau to another. Take Lisa the kindly evangelist who, without a qualm, gives up her mother’s house, her inheritance and then her marriage to Stan, for the family. Certainly, I’m not suggesting that such acts of selfless kindness aren’t possible, only that they cannot stand alone in the place of characterization. Lisa has no desires of her own. She’s just a mouthpiece for platitudes.
Further, no doubt Palwick is a sensitive humanist, and clearly she is a political and moral Liberal, but did she have to be so didactically obvious about it? Here we have a discourse on the evils of capital punishment, and a few pages later a sketch on the insatiable evils of materialism. Here is a romantic interest for Zama so divinely kind and generous he could well be mistaken for Christ himself. And there a pair of Christians, one free-thinking and acting upon a gospel of love and one endlessly harping on the works of the Devil. (Guess which one finally sees the "light"?) Truly, there was a real opportunity in The Necessary Beggar to explore the socio-political xenophobia of a post 9/11 America and to get serious about the outcomes — good and bad — of immigrant realities. The idea itself is entirely worthy of that vital brand of anthropological Fantasy that other authors have commanded so well. But it all gets lost as characters ham up the melodrama and paddle steadily towards their happy ending.
When, in the final chapters, the entire family leaps in Lisa’s SUV to chase down a bus taking a homeless acquaintance to the exact refugee camp they escaped from a decade earlier you just know redemption is around the corner. Sooner rather than later ghosts are imparting vital plot points in people’s dreams, while family members are breaking their addictions and saving their apparently wrecked marriages in minutes and everyone else is discovering the true meaning of love in exile. I was duly suffocated by the bathos. I was filled with a deep disappointment: it is never worth squandering your thematic capital for a heart-warming ending or to expound a Liberal polemic. Life isn’t about to hand over uncomplicated, unconflicted solutions to the problems of immigration in this century and from where I’m standing Fantasy literature shouldn’t pretend to either.